Maintenance plans are a consultant's best bet for smoothing the turbulence that accompanies most IT support roles. By minimizing downtime, maintenance and support contracts help IT consultants develop more predictable schedules, generate more consistent revenue, and eliminate many unplanned outages, which quickly tire and exhaust even well-staffed consultancies. Maintenance plans offer another important benefit: These plans help ensure proper data backup operations are in place and are working as required.
Smart organizations work to protect their data from catastrophic loss due to fire and other threats. In Louisville, KY, where my IT consultancy resides, tornadoes are another worry. But how often do such scenarios prove realistic? Well, take a lesson from my IT consultancy. In the last 11 months, my office has had to assist clients in recovering from an unforeseen hurricane (yes, such things exist), a devastating ice storm, and events of the last week.
Last Tuesday, August 4, 2009, began like any other day. A breakfast meeting with a strategic partner was followed by a new desktop deployment and data migration. Then emergency calls started rolling in around 10:00 AM. Clients all over town were taking on water, literally. High water, even in locales usually immune from flash flooding, resulted in millions of dollars in damage. Such is the effect of more than six inches of rain within an hour.
This situation is a good example of why I advocate selling maintenance plans. These support contracts are an excellent method of not only smoothing your consultancy's business operations but also protecting clients from the loss of critical data. But, before an IT consultancy can maximize maintenance plans, consultants must first learn how to properly administer them. After three-and-a-half years of consulting full time, I've learned a few lessons. Here are three tips for billing maintenance plans:
1. Describe services
When performing maintenance tasks — such as monitoring server disk space or e-mail logs, reviewing antivirus scans and back up routines, and downloading and installing security patches and performance updates — be sure to tell clients which tasks you complete; this is especially true if you perform these services remotely.
Don't just send an invoice that lists "server maintenance" and don't just describe services as "reviewed backup logs" or "server maintenance" on the invoice. Instead, state "confirmed server back up operations were backing up critical data off-site as scheduled" or "downloaded and installed Microsoft-recommended server security and performance patches to protect against newly identified threats and known performance issues." By including additional information, you better enable the client to understand exactly how you continue to add value to their business.
2. Write tight maintenance agreements
Clients don't always differentiate between maintenance work and new projects. If you draft an agreement that specifies you'll provide support service, be sure to define the tasks that constitute maintenance and support. Some clients may believe migrating data from an old server to a new Windows domain constitutes maintenance, while most consultants will view such a complex and time-consuming task as a new project.
Better yet, when drafting maintenance and support plans, specify the number of IT service hours the client receives each month. If the client surprises you with a new project, then it's not a problem. You should include language in the maintenance contract that clearly states the hourly rate the client will pay for any IT services delivered above and beyond the number of hours they receive each month as part of the maintenance or service plan. This strategy helps eliminate any unpleasant surprises when the client receives your bill.
3. Leverage reporting features and tools
Windows Small Business Server includes daily performance reporting features. Third-party tools, including GFI Software's HoundDog and HyBlue's Windows Monitor, offer alternative monitoring opportunities. Even APC power management software and image backup applications offer automated and alert reporting. Be sure to use these types of tools to keep an eye on your client's servers and computers. Review appropriate performance reports daily to help identify troublesome trends and errors before the issues become crises. Then, be sure to include the time spent on such tasks on your monthly maintenance plan invoice.Get weekly consulting tips in your inbox TechRepublic's IT Consultant newsletter, delivered each Monday, offers tips on how to attract customers, build your business, and increase your technical skills in order to get the job done. Automatically sign up today!
Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president of Eckel Media Corp., a communications company specializing in public relations and technical authoring projects.